Green Jobs in Energy-Efficiency Retrofitting: Moving from Promise to Policy in New Jersey

September 30, 2009 -- Partnership for Working Families

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act injected unprecedented funding into home weatherization programs in states across the nation, creating an immediate impetus for states to build weatherization programs that really work.  This includes reaching a scale that addresses climate change, making a real impact on energy costs for the lowest-income homeowners, and creating many thousands of entry-level jobs in construction that become the first step into sustainable careers in construction for workers who desperately need them.

In January, the Garden State Alliance for a New Economy (GANE) and Laborers Union Local 55 launched a highly publicized pilot project to provide a compelling, clear vision of the promise of weatherization for low-income urban communities.  A Newark-based African-American contractor became a union signatory and hired eighteen Newark residents to weatherize thirty homes of low-income Newark seniors.  

Some of the workers were immigrant day laborers who typically work on the margins of the construction industry.  Others were African-American workers who have historically faced barriers to entry into mainstream construction work. 

The workers were trained in weatherization techniques at the Laborers’ state-of-the-art training facility, and paid the union rate of seventeen dollars per hour plus health benefits and a small pension.  After the initial pilot, the workers who did not have an extensive background in construction joined a class of 22 workers who attended the Laborers’ six-week training in green construction. "The work I'm doing now, I can really see a future in it," says Perry McKinney, Laborers 55 member and weatherization project graduate. "I haven't felt that way for a long time."

The response to our pilot was phenomenal.   Governor Corzine attended the graduation of the first class of green construction trainees and promised his backing.  

These promises became policy.  New Jersey’s energy plan, which governs how the $120 million in ARRA dollars are spent, includes extremely strong language that requires that weatherization contractors hire workers who have faced barriers to entry into union construction work, must pay them living wages and benefits, must make sure they have access to the continued training that gives them the skills they need to climb a construction career ladder, and must give them the right to choose freely whether to belong to a union.  

The promises became policy because of the Laborers’ political clout, combined with the grassroots energy provided by the low-income workers.  GANE worked with community-based partners—New Labor, Renaissance Community Church, the Urban Environmental Institute of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, and others—to recruit the pilot participants and to organize them to push for the public policy. "It's amazing what can happen when you combine the strength of a powerful labor union and the grassroots energy of community organizing," says Kate Atkins, GANE Executive Director.

GANE is now working with the Laborers Union to implement the green jobs program statewide.